Date: July 1st, 2006
Whenever you open a newspaper or magazine these days, you’re likely to find an article exhorting baby boomers to plan for retirement—telling them to save more, to learn about portfolio planning, and to project their financial needs for decades to come.
This focus on financial health may improve the state of boomers’ wallets, but it ignores the single greatest issue that will affect their quality of life in retirement: the high probability of chronic disease. The Alliance for Aging Research reports that by age 65, nearly nine out of ten Americans will have at least one chronic condition.
A recent survey by Roper/GfK reveals that most Americans drastically underestimate their chances of getting cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease as they age. When asked about their chances of having a chronic disease by age 65, just 4% of survey respondents selected the correct range (81%–90%). Just 10% of the American public correctly estimates their chances of getting cardiovascular disease (61%-70%)1.
How Big an Age Wave?
When the baby boomers start turning 65 in 2011, 10,000 people will turn 65 every day—and continue to do so for the next for 20 years. By 2030, almost one out of every five Americans—some 72 million people—will be 65 years or older. By 2050, the 65+ population is projected to be between 80 and 90 million, with those 85 and older close to 21 million. Not only will there be many more senior Americans, but they’ll be living longer: individual life expectancy is increasing. But a significant proportion of seniors age 65+ suffer from health problems and chronic disease, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, hypertension, or Alzheimer’s. About 80 percent of seniors have at least one chronic health condition, and the majority suffer from multiple chronic conditions, robbing them of quality of life, rendering them less productive and running up a huge and unsustainable bill for medical care.
More than 80 percent of health care spending is for people with chronic conditions. Health expenditures are already skyrocketing and are expected to reach $16 trillion by 2030. The only current defense between this growing “age wave” and an already overburdened health care system is the hope that medical research breakthroughs and new technologies can remake the experience of chronic disease—and remake it quickly.
Preparing for the Silver Tsunami
Boomers are well advised to take steps to insure their own health by exercise, diet, and regular medical exams, but should also understand the prevalence of chronic disease in later life. Similarly, those who are responsible for setting our national health priorities need to realistically confront and plan for the long-term demands chronic disease will impose on the future.
After a major tsunami devastated parts of Asia in December 2004, the U.S. stepped up efforts to help countries improve their communications and early warning systems. An equivalent effort is underway to alert policymakers and others that the leading edge of the baby boom is about to overwhelm our national health care system.
The Alliance for Aging Research recently released a new publication/web resource called The Silver Book: Chronic Disease and Medical Innovation in an Aging Nation, a one-of-a-kind reference book that brings together data from more than 100 authoritative sources to spotlight the social and economic impact of chronic disease. The Silver Book not only shows the burden chronic disease will have on our nation as our senior population explodes, but also highlights the potential of medical innovation to address the problems.
The Alliance believes that a solid and shared understanding of the dimensions of the problem of the “silver tsunami” is essential, if its potential for economic and social devastation is to be averted. The Silver Book is one step in that direction, and is intended to serve as a ready and trusted resource for policymakers and others who influence health care. The Silver Book presents compelling evidence that medical innovation not only improves the length and quality of life, but also helps to contain health care costs.
To cite just two examples of the kind of information found in The Silver Book, it notes that the United States could save $26 billion per year if currently healthy older people were able to remain fully independent over the course of a single year. Or, that use of existing or new drugs/compounds for Alzheimer’s prevention could result in a delay of onset of between two and five years. Advocates for greater investment in medical research must have this kind of evidence to successfully argue their case. The need for them to do so is urgent, before the “silver tsunami” hits and transforms our nation.
Much of the information in The Silver Book has previously been buried in dense, detailed reports: key findings from these reports are now presented in an easy-to-use format. The Silver Book will be updated on a regular basis to keep data current and includes a searchable database. It is available to everyone for purchase or free download at: www.silverbook.org.
1Survey conducted by Roper Public Affairs Group among a national random digit dialing probability sample of 1,000 Americans age 18 and above. The survey was conducted March 17-19, 2006.